Reprieve for special needs respite breaks - but future not yet finalised

Mums Nikki Kimber and Sue Armstrong, who have daughter with special needs and disabilities
Mums Nikki Kimber and Sue Armstrong, who have daughter with special needs and disabilities
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A mother who has been campaigning to protect a short break service for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) has welcomed a pledge by Lancashire County Council to reconsider the scheme’s future.

But Nikki Kimber, from St. Annes, says parents and carers need to “keep the pressure on” the authority as it embarks on a wide-ranging review of all its SEND respite services.

Joanne Barnes runs the Play Inclusion Project which provides activities funded by Lancashire Breaktime

Joanne Barnes runs the Play Inclusion Project which provides activities funded by Lancashire Breaktime

READ MORE >>> Legal bid launched to block special needs respite cut

Earlier this year, Nikki helped launch a crowd-funded call to mount a legal challenge if County Hall decided to scrap the Lancashire Breaktime Service.

The proposal to cut the scheme, which offers parents brief breaks from their caring responsibilities, was approved by councillors when they set the county council’s budget back in February. However, the plan was subject to a public consultation which drew more than 750 responses.

Lancashire County County Council announced in May that it would carry out “further engagement” with parents and carers before the end of July, ahead of cabinet members being asked to make a final decision about Breaktime in the autumn.

But the authority has now said that the consultation has prompted it to review all of its short break services with a view to redesigning them “in conjunction with families and carers”. The Breaktime service, which costs the authority just over £1m per year, will continue uninterrupted in the meantime.

Nikki, whose 17-year-old daughter Antonia attends a Breaktime-funded project in Preston, said that the latest reassurance was welcome – but overdue.

“The providers had no certainty that the funding was going to continue beyond August, so they were already having to take decisions about whether they should wind down and make people redundant,” Nikki explained.

“That meant Breaktime was ending almost by default – it was going to dissolve in front of us and would have been very difficult to build back up if the decision had then been taken to retain it.

“I do think it is very positive that the council has now demonstrated their desire to listen to parents and carers and engage with them to ensure that the short break provision is the best it can be in the future.

“Nobody seemed to give it the importance which we parents and carers did – it was just written off as a club.”

The local democracy reporting service understands that the authority last week received a formal letter from solicitors engaged by campaigners. It requested that the council commit to giving providers of Breaktime services “reasonable notice” of any decision to end the scheme – or face judicial review.

“The council had put back the decision date, but not the date on which the funding was to be withdrawn,” said James Betts, a solicitor with Irwin Mitchell.

“They have now confirmed the notice period which they would have to give – three months – and hopefully they will now work with parents, carers and providers to reach a consensus [over future provision].”

Responding to the threat of a judicial review, a spokesman for Lancashire County Council said: “The council in May announced it wanted to carry out more engagement activity with parents, children and young people to make a fully informed decision about the service’s future. This process has been ongoing since then, helping to decide next steps in the light of people’s views.”

Edwina Grant OBE, the council’s executive director for education and children’s services, added: “I would like to thank everyone who took the time to respond to our consultation. We have listened to your views and through the responses we received it has become clear that we need to look at the whole short break service and not just Lancashire Breaktime, to deliver a service that better meets your needs.

“We recognise that the wider service provision is quite traditional and could be better designed around the needs of children and their families.

“We therefore want to look at how we can consider the whole service offer in partnership with parents and carers and we will be carrying out a range of activities that include face to face meetings with parents and carers to shape a new service offer.

“In the meantime, the Lancashire Breaktime service will continue in its current form until the review of how short breaks are to be delivered is completed.”

‘BUDGET NEEDS TO BE MORE FLEXIBLE’

The manager of a charity which provides Breaktime-funded activities for young people with special needs and disabilities says she is now “optimistic” about the future of the scheme in light of Lancashire County Council’s promised rethink.

Joanne Barnes, who runs the Play Inclusion Project (PIP) from bases in Preston, Fleetwood and Thornoton, said she was planning to take two sets of financial figures to the charity’s trustees next month – one based on Breaktime being scrapped and the other on it being spared.

“It would have been very difficult to continue any of the activities currently paid for by Breaktime if that money had dried up,” Joanne said.

“We would almost certainly have had to cut all those services and only provide those funded by other sources which we have access to.

“I think it’s good that the county council has said it will listen to the opinions of parents and providers, because this work is important.”

Joanne wants the council to seize the promised wholesale review of respite services to make the budgets which pay for them more flexible.

Currently, Breaktime schemes are open to young people who have not had a statutory assessment of their needs. When the proposal to end the service was made earlier this year, council officers concluded that it could prompt an increase in requests for such assessments – which might prove more costly to the council.

Parents and carers with children entitled to statutory help can receive “direct payments” to fund care support for their children.

But Joanne says using such payments for services like those provided by PIP is not straightforward.

“They should bring the direct payment and [discretionary] Breaktime budgets together to create more flexibility for parents and providers.

“Sometimes, children with statutory support find it difficult to access the kind of social activities which we provide at PIP – but that is exactly what they need,” Joanne said.